By our count, there are about 52 hybrid-electric vehicles and another four plug-in hybrid electric vehicles currently offered by 18 manufacturers. We need to say ?about? because things change so quickly in the automotive market, others may have been added since we started counting a few minutes ago.
The vehicles range from mild hybrid trucks and SUVs to plug-in models that are continually powered by electric motors that have an on-board gasoline engine to charge the battery to models specifically designed as a hybrid. The largest grouping is the traditional gasoline vehicles converted to hybrid like the Kia Optima Hybrid we drove recently.
Over the last few years, we?ve had the opportunity to drive most of the hybrids and the Kia Optima Hybrid has been one that always impressed us. The distinctive styling, alone sets the frugal Optima apart from the crowd. The Hybrid version does get some subtle changes to the headlights, rear spoiler, under floor panels and other parts of the body that are designed to improve the car?s aerodynamics to a low 0.26 coefficient of drag — 10 percent better than the gasoline model.
Inside the Hybrid, it is Optima all the way with attractive appointments, quality finish and well-organized spaces. The upper level EX version even has standard features like leather seating surfaces, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and heated rear seats. Rounding out the standard equipment is a panoramic sunroof and voice controlled navigation system.
The 2013 Kia Optima Hybrid has the same basic characteristics as the gasoline powered Optimas, but the hybrid technology actually gives it a performance boost over the naturally aspirated versions and better fuel economy.
Unlike many other hybrids, Kia/Hyundai engineers developed their own hybrid system rather than collaborating with another manufacturer or licensing Toyota?s Prius technology as many manufacturers do. The Kia system uses a 47 horsepower electric motor connected by a wet clutch to the efficient 159-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine. The power is transmitted to the front wheels by an efficient six-speed automatic transmission. The pairing results in a smooth, good performing package that achieves an EPA rating of 35 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and 37 mpg combined. It does that and still accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds. We averaged 36.1 mpg during the week we drove the Optima.
The system uses a 270-volt lithium-polymer battery, which Kia did develop in a partnership with LG Chem. The battery weighs only 91 pounds and is about 20-30 percent lighter than typical nickel metal hydride systems and takes up to 40 percent less space. The battery also has a 10-year, 150,000-mile warranty.
The Kia Hybrid is available in two trim levels, the LX and EX, which are priced at $26,700 and $32,750 respectively. The EX has virtually no options and the LX has one basic Convenience Package ($700).
In-car connectivity is a big deal now and the Optima Hybrid is the first Kia model to get the new Microsoft? powered voice-activated infotainment system called UVO. It is paired with all the audio functions including SiriusXM?. The system also includes USB input jacks, Bluetooth and a back-up camera. The UVO system was easy to operate and it?s easy to find Barbara?s favorite sing-along XM Sirius station ? think Sinatra
One of the interesting safety features we discovered was the Virtual Engine Sound System (VESS). Because it would be easy to startle a pedestrian when moving silently through a parking lot or similar area, Kia safety engineers created the VESS system, which plays a pre-recorded engine sound during electric-only operation up to 12 miles per hour. It is designed to help warn people outside the vehicle that it is approaching.
The electric only mode isn?t just active in parking lots and in town, we were amazed when we looked down at the gauges and saw that we were cruising along, quite often at 50 mpg or more (it?s supposed to go as high as 62 mph) in the electric-only mode. The transition was invisible so we had to watch the gauges to know where our power was coming from.
You can definitely feel the regenerative braking while stopping, but we thought the transition between gasoline and electric was seamless.